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News & opinion

13 AUG 2018

Second machine age technologies: Risks and opportunities

We have pools of information larger than any library mankind has ever built at our finger tips; communication with anyone in any location in the world can happen instantly; new modes of production with robotics and 3D printing are available for very reasonable costs; and finance and banking models are being transformed through digital currencies.

As part of our consultation on the Future of the Profession, a project which will help us understand how our profession is adapting to new technologies and changes in the market. We spoke to M. Hank Haeusler, Associate Professor at the UNSW Built Environment, to ask his views on the risks and opportunities the industry faces as a result of technological developments.

The exponential growth of computing power, the Internet of Things (IoT), digitalized information (Big Data), user-generated data, social media and Artificial Intelligence are driving societal change within the Architecture Engineering Construction (AEC) industry. We must therefore ask ourselves two important questions:

  1. What opportunities will new technology create for professionals within the built and natural environments?
  2. What will be required in terms of education to ensure the profession attracts and retains the best talent?

Before outlining the opportunities for our profession, it is important to understand the current situation within the construction industry. To what extent are we already implementing new technologies? The answer: hardly at all. 

A study published in Germany shows the capital investment in Industry 2.0 (electrification), Industry 3.0 (automation) and Industry 4.0 (a connected economy) in the AEC industry. These figures were 79.4% in Industry 2.0; 17.9% in Industry 3.0; and only 2.7% in Industry 4.0 (Spiegel 2018). The extent of digital transformation in the construction industry to date is poor. 

Good news

So where is the good news? The good news is that the construction industry does not have to invest as heavily as others in R&D to develop tools, workflows and systems from scratch, but can adopt and borrow concepts tested and evaluated in other fields for their own. A lot of the hard lifting has already been done. If these innovations are available at present, why is no-one in the AEC industry picking them up?

Digital technologies are here to stay and will become the norm in the AEC industry in the not-too-distant future. This means that education, universities as well TAFE (professional education), needs to change. Students at the completion of their degree need to be able to:

  • Synthesise historical and theoretical knowledge of second machine age thinking and methods in an AEC context
  • Critically analyse AEC projects that engage second machine age thinking and methods
  • Analyse and evaluate the ethical application of digital and computational technologies in an AEC context

Computer vs human

Without doubt, a computer will always be better at performing manual, repetitive tasks and analysing large sets of data. Humans on the other hand, are better at things a computer is unable to understand such as aesthetics or empathy, to name but two. Educational learning outcomes like the ones listed above will help humans to fill, what Wilson and Dougherty named, the “missing middle”. They argue that it is in the “missing middle” that most jobs of the future will be created.

We must learn how to work with machines in order to harness our skills and carry out our roles effectively. This will not only create new opportunities for the AEC industry but help us overcome challenges (and in some cases, extreme threats) facing our world today such as sustainability and climate change; urban density or housing affordability.